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Cycling in China


Cycling in China can be a fantastic experience. But since China is so big, where to start your journey? Based on my almost 3 years in China, I have written a series of pages with ideas what to do and what to see. Personally I find China fascinating!

Tibet, cycling here is a serious challenge

Tibet, cycling here is a serious challenge

Don't expect you will see everything, even if you spend more than 2 years in the country. I usually say China is not a country, it's a continent! For most travelers and cyclists alike, cycling in China is about making choices.

An old photo when I was cycling the first time in Yunnan, 1997
An old photo when I was cycling the first time in Yunnan, 1997

But what choice? To get an idea about the size of the country, think this way, Yunnan province alone, a popular travel destination in China, is as big as France.

I have been about 2 years cycling in China and almost a whole year more without the bike. Most of my time I spend in the south: Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou and Yunnan, plus Sichuan, Tibet, Gansu, Hunan and Xinjiang.

Xingping to Guilin

Spectacular Views in hardly traveled areas,
this photo was made on the back road from Guilin to Xingping

And yes, I have been to Beijing and Xi'an (twice) too. So the focus of my China pages will be on those areas.

This first page will introduce you into the various aspects of cycling in China. How do you prepare for China? What is a good place to pick up visa, and some ideas where you could start.

Preparations

Rest in the Stone Forest, Shilin Yunnan
Rest in the Stone Forest Shilin Yunnan, 2002

It depends really how much time you have. China is so big that cycling in China can be a sole journey for a year or even two.

So I have to make a separation between short term visitors and those who want to spent a long time.

If you have a limited time, choose a province, Yunnan is a good choice for a 3-4 week cycling holiday.

But whichever province you choose, remember you can always drop your bicycle on a bus or train and move somewhere else.

For example, should you choose Yunnan, you can easily spend 2-3 weeks in the Yunnan-Dali-Lijiang-Shangri-La alone. The country is that vast.

Visa

If you come for a short holiday, get your visa in your home country. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to get it in Hong Kong which is still the easiest place to arrange a visa (no, not at the CTS, I usually use the Japanese Travel Agency, East ocean Building in Kowloon (5th floor).

Coming overland, well, usually you can get at least a month visa in the country you travel. In Islamabad I could only get 1 month (here's that story), Kathmandu had to go through a travel agency and only 7 days, Bangkok and Vientiane were no problem too.

Hong Kong Island, surprisingly green
Hong Kong Island, surprisingly green

Permits

Tip: Never hand over your passport while being on the street. Insist going to a police post. There are reports of people blackmailed by so-called policemen.

Cycling in China today requires no longer special attention for restricted areas except for Tibet. Getting such a permit can be difficult and can change from day to day. Probably the best place to try to get such a permit is the immigration office in Chengdu. Or contact Peter Snow from BikeChina.com

Accommodation

In the past finding cheap accommodation was everywhere difficult and always expensive. These days however it can be dirt cheap. This solely depends where you travel. The big cities and tourist area will always be expensive. Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and other major cities. However, you will be bicycling in areas where fewer people travel.

In November 2011 I cycled from Yangshuo to Nanning and stayed a night in Xiangzhou where I got a suite (including my own computer and internet) for $12.

The suite in Xiangzhou for $12
The suite in Xiangzhou for $12

Another similar experience I had was when I cycled from Guizhou into Guangxi. Here is that story.

Off the tourist trail it's easy and cheap to find accommodation. For tourist areas you may want to book in advance. Outside the tourist areas, well, I usually cycle in a city and find some place. Apart from the China New Year, first week of May and Moonfestival week, there is seldom a problem to get a room. Should you still want to book in advance, have a look here:

The Roads for cycling in China

You will find the roads in China surprisingly good for cycling. In many provinces the government is very busy upgrading which makes cycling in China a lot easier. The consequence of the upgrading is sometimes that old roads are completely destroyed. The good thing about this is that at many places the construction of highways have made the old national roads more quiet and fun to cycle.

Black Dragon Lake Lijiang

Having said that, you will also find some of the smaller roads in what the Chinese call "backwards provinces" surprisingly bad.

Because China is so big, you may not everywhere find other cyclists. Exception as for example Dali-Lijiang where many cyclists travel. But even around Yangshuo, I seldom see long distance cyclists around.

Here's a story about a meeting I had a with a local Chinese cyclist

The Traffic

China contains the most bicycles in the world. Only in bicycles per head of the population, Holland contains probably as many bikes as China. Many Chinese use bicycles, which means to some extend that cycling in China is quite easy.

It means the Chinese are used to cyclists, although mostly not in the speed and with the luggage you might cycle. Especially in cities some people tend to cycle in a speed that made them just not falling over.

Local transport in Yunnan
Local transport in Yunnan,
here at the Shapin Market

I found cycling in China quite safe with the exception of some big cities as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Beijing. But even Kunming, Nanning or Chengdu were OK to do (not too much fun though).

Outside the big cities you will hardly suffer from the traffic (unless you cycle on big open roads). You get space enough, even on the bigger roads.

Yamdrok Lake Tibet
Yamdrok Lake in Tibet, on the road from Lhasa to Gyantse

Many ongoing roads have road markers and many usually have markers in English but once you take the local roads it's usually Chinese only. Therefore I recommend the use of a Chinese made provincial map which are usually better than the English maps (from for example Nelles.

And with a map in local language, you can have a lot of fun, make easier contact with local people and, most of all, find your way easier. Read more about my experiences with maps in local languages. Local maps are all over the country in the bookstores available, and usually cost no more then Y6.

Guizhou
Guizhou province

Bus and Trains

And if you get tired of cycling, or the weather conditions get nasty, take a bus or train! Trains are well organized in China. They go frequent, are usually on time, and cheaper (and less hassle) then flights (except soft sleepers). You will usually pay a small fee for the bike in the train, but it should not be more than 10%. I had once my bicycle with me in a soft sleeper train and didn't have to pay extra for it. It can happen, but it's rather exception than rule. However, on the express trains you can always bring your bike.

Trains in China

What to visit?

It's hard to give a recommendation what you should visit. Remember this, if you are only interested in the popular travel destinations, you don't need to cycle. To get the most out of cycling in China, you have to get away from the tourist trails.

Langmusi, Gansu Province
Langmusi, north China in February.

This doesn't necessarily mean you won't visit them. I usually see the Great Wall of China, Yangshuo, Kunming and Lijiang as the cream on the pie. The best memories I have of China are from unknown names on the map like Sanglang where I showed people my map and videos and had a great night with them. And I doubt many travelers except a lost cyclist have ever been there since I was there.

The beauty of Yangshuo
The beauty of Yangshuo

West Sichuan, not only the Tibet road to Kangding and Litang or the south road to Yunnan but also north to Danba and Barkam are fantastic experiences and highly recommended. Another far less traveled road leads from Chengdu to Xian and is absolutely worth to cycle. The road to Leshan and from there into the south of Sichuan into north east Yunnan is beautiful and remote. See my Sichuan page for the details

Xi'an is more than the famous Terracotta Warriors, like Tibet is much more than Lhasa. Guizhou is a province most travelers skip but it can offer some of the most amazing experiences in China you can have. And so is Guangxi.

A personal favorite for me is Yangshuo, for which I wrote a special website Yangshuo Travel Guide.com

I suggest that if you have the desire to cycle in China, take either a lot of time or choose a province or an area you want to explore. If you are only interested in the "highlights of China", it's probably better to get a backpack and use trains, planes and buses.

This website with China

My bicycle adventures.com has a large section about China. Some parts overlap each other. Basically you will find the following provinces covered (to more or less extend).

Here are only a few photos of China I made in the last 15 years. Some areas I did visit, like Beijing and the Gobi desert I have no photo material anymore as it was stolen with my backpack (my first Chinese journey was with a backpack). Therefore I have not written about it. The far west of China is not yet written (ie Kashgar and the road to Lhasa).

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China with children

China is not considered to be an easy country to travel, let alone to travel with the whole family. Miriam knows better, she wrote a full website with tales, tips and tricks about traveling in China with her family.

Traveling in China is not only doable, but fun and quite easy too. Here's Miriam's story:

China-family-adventure.com


Bicycling to Guilin

Kunming and Guilin are since long travelers favorites. Most travel in between the two cities by train. That's too bad as there is enough to see to keep you busy for a few weeks. Get your bicycle and cycle with me from Kunming to Guilin

Kunming to Guilin


Lijiang

North Yunnan's Lijiang is one of the "must go to" towns in Yunnan, if not in China at all. Rebuild after an earthquake in the 1980's and now part of World Heritage, Lijiang is fantastic.

Lijiang